President Barack Obama’s new 12-page directive on trade and travel to Cuba, widely heralded for its elimination of limits on Americans’ purchases of cigars and rum, contains a largely unnoticed provision that has alarmed Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
It instructs the U.S. director of national intelligence to cooperate with Cuban intelligence services.
The Obama administration says the one-sentence objective, which calls on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence “to find opportunities for engagement on areas of common interest” with Cuban counterparts, is intended to combat “mutual threats.”
But in South Florida the directive has angered a community that remembers the roles Cuban spies and agents played in the downing of two planes of the Brothers to the Rescue exile group and the theft of U.S. military secrets by an agent planted in the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Forget about the cigars, this is a huge deal,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. “This is a huge threat to our national security.”
Diaz-Balart, a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said Cuba shares intelligence with Russia and Iran, among others. Earlier this year, Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Cuba was among four countries that pose the greatest espionage threat to the United States. The others were Russia, China and Iran.
“The threat from foreign intelligence entities, both state and non-state, is persistent, complex and evolving,” Clapper testified in a February hearing on “Worldwide Threats.” “Targeting collection of U.S. political, military, economic and technical information by foreign intelligence services continues unabated.”
Over the course of five decades, Fidel Castro built one of the world’s most active intelligence services, whose missions included spying on U.S. military facilities in South Florida and infiltrating leading Cuban exile organizations in Miami.
But Joseph Wippl, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who spent 30 years in the agency’s National Clandestine Service, said that was not the case today. Cuba no longer poses a serious threat to the United States, he said.
“I think probably the intelligence relationship we’d have with Cuba is like the one we have with Russia,” he said. “Will they continue to spy against us? I would think so. Would we continue to spy against them? I would think so.”
Despite that adversarial relationship, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed to share intelligence on Islamic State militants. Wippl, who teaches intelligence studies at Boston University, sees a similar scenario in which the United States shares information on a limited basis in specific areas, such as counternarcotics.
The United States would alert any country of a possible imminent terrorist threat, said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. But the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned that the United States never wants its intelligence in the hands of people who might share it with adversaries like Russia and Iran.
“I don’t think, as long as I’m chairman of the committee, that the intelligence community is going to be in an intelligence-sharing relationship with Cuba,” Burr said.
Brian Latell, a former CIA official who wrote “Castro’s Secrets: Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy,” said the administration directive sounded exploratory and could be good if it helped save immigrant lives or stopped drug planes on their way to the United States. But he said he didn’t expect much enthusiasm in U.S. intelligence agencies for sharing anything sensitive with their Cuban counterparts. He also noted Clapper’s comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Cuban counterintelligence threat.
“Cuban intelligence activities in the United States are still very intense and very wide-ranging, and they probably haven’t been reduced at all over the very high levels of previous years,” said Latell, who is an adjunct professor and senior research associate at the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
There already is some cooperation between high-ranking defense officials from both countries. The commander of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo has long held private meetings with Cuban military officials to discuss fire protection in the arid land around the base. Earlier this year, Cuban national security officials toured the Pentagon’s counter-drug center in Key West. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, described it as an effort to crack down on illegal trafficking in the Caribbean.
But the idea of sharing sensitive “intelligence” with the country that created an elaborate system to spy on the United States seems incomprehensible to many. In the 1990s, Cuban intelligence created the Wasp Network, which spied on U.S. military facilities in South Florida and infiltrated the Brothers to the Rescue. Information the network passed to Havana helped Cuba down two of the group’s planes, killing their four occupants.
Gerardo Hernández, who was condemned to two life sentences in federal prison for leading the Wasp Network, was freed along with two other Cuban spies in a 2014 prisoner swap that heralded the warming of relations and included Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. In one of the stranger aspects of the newfound diplomacy, before Hernández’s release, the U.S. government sent his sperm to his wife so she could get pregnant.
Some worry that Cuban spy Ana Belen Montes could be next to be released. Sometimes referred to as the most important spy you’ve never heard of, Montes spent nearly two decades spying for the Cuban government while working for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The Obama administration has said it has no intention of releasing or swapping her.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was among a group of Cuban-American lawmakers who raised concerns last year that the Castro government might use its diplomats at the reopened Cuban embassy in Washington as intelligence agents.
“It is unconscionable that D.C. is seeking engagement on the intelligence front with an avowed enemy of the U.S. when we know of Russia’s military presence in Cuba, Castro’s espionage apparatus and air traffic security at risk, which all undermine our own national security,” she said.
Anna Douglas contributed to this article.